The hidden life of garbage laid bare

May 3, 2018
Garbage as we know it is a relatively new invention.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
By Heather Rogers
New Press, 2006
Paperback, 288 pages

Heather Rogers has written a brilliant book about a very relevant topic given the current crisis in Australia over recycling. This is Rogers’ first book. A journalist and filmmaker, she produced a documentary in 2002 with the same name as the book. 

Released in 2006, the book earned the Editor’s Choice distinction from the New York Times Book Review, and Non-Fiction Choice from The Guardian.

If the topic seems less than captivating, there can be no doubting its importance. Rogers’ work shows the link to our health and exposes how many of us have been deceived by large corporations.

Although her thorough research is about the history of the production and management of garbage in the United States, it is just as applicable in Australia.

She traces the path of garbage, the system of recycling and waste management. In chapter one, she describes the hellish scene of landfills and how they can “go wrong”.

Landfills are meant to be monitored to prevent contamination of air and water. However, illegal mixing of hazardous wastes, including medical waste, human body parts, radioactive castoffs and asbestos with regular rubbish does happen.

Rogers also explains how waste management has become a billion dollar business. The number of companies involved has shrunk dramatically, but their political pull has grown.

She explains how the cost of goods has influenced our propensity to discard. Industrialisation has led to mass production, which leads to huge falls in the costs of commodities.

Rogers writes: “Garbage as we know it is a relatively new invention predicated on the monumental technological and social changes wrought by industrialisation.”

The social changes changed the way people worked and lived, no longer producing many vital goods of daily life themselves or having the time to repair things. And so consumerism and its inevitable offshoot, modern waste, began.

Rogers details the development methods aiming to keep cities clean, in particular to prevent mass outbreaks of diseases. This was important to different social classes for different reasons. For the middle and upper classes, disease hindered the smooth running of commerce. For the lower classes, it was about survival.

Rogers also outlines how the 1950s was the golden age of consumption, but also marked new resistance to it.

The next stage of the development of consumerism and capitalism was built-in obsolescence. Ensuring products had a shorter-than-needed lifespan meant a guaranteed, if not expanding, market.

Plastics became the symbol not only of wastefulness, but also of an “unfettered production flow”. This produced a large source of toxic garbage.

She says: “By 1960, plastics surpassed aluminium to become one of the largest industries in the country.” Along with this, capitalists had to create consumers — so spending on advertising and marketing skyrocketed.

Rogers also traces the growth of the environmental movement and its impact on government policy — and corporate resistance to it. One such example is the fight around refillable versus single-use or disposable bottles and containers.

Up until the ’70s, most beverages came in refillable glass bottles. I have clear memories of how it used to be in Australia. My parents owned a mixed business/milkbar in the ’60s and ’70s and I remember all the crates of empty glass bottles out the back of the shop.

The drink company truck would visit our milk bar monthly to collect them and replace them with new batches of full lemonade bottles to sell. The same process took place daily with milk.

Also, all our biscuits came in large tins. Customers would buy them according to weight and take them home in a paper bag. There were no plastic bags for this purpose. We also stocked lollies in bulk.

These are some examples of how waste could be cut, but as Rogers details, the corporations successfully fought that battle. Aside from the increased waste, the costs for packaging were paid for by consumers — the price of each product included the cost of packaging. Nonetheless, resistance to unnecessary and polluting waste has continued to the present day.

Once waste became an obvious problem, environmentalists began recycling programs. At the same time, some emphasised that reducing waste before it was created was vital.

In response to such calls, the packaging industry launched the Keep America Beautiful campaign. Huge resources were poured into this campaign to distract Americans and policymakers from regulating the industry, instead placing the responsibility for waste onto individuals.

Instead of laws punishing companies for creating waste, legislation was enacted to fine or even jail litterers. This shifted the debate from industry responsibility and regulation and obscured the real causes of waste.

Rogers notes: “Taking this tack, the group could defend disposability and obsolescence; the problem wasn’t the rising levels of waste, they explained, it was all those heathens who failed to put their discards in the proper place.”

As time has gone on, recycling has been used in the same way. Rogers writes: “Unlike reduction and reuse, remanufacturing single-use materials into new containers and packages would not impinge on consumption levels and would have the least impact on established manufacturing processes.”

We all went mad recycling, but by the end of the ’80s it became clear that remanufacturing could be inefficient, polluting and expensive. Soon recycling became a very profitable business, opening the door to large conglomerates. Some of the waste had to be exported.

Today, much is exported to poorer countries, where labour is cheap and there are fewer regulations. Waste is not only exported to poorer countries, but also to poorer areas within the US.

Modern rubbish also includes electronic equipment, such as mobile phones and computers. Obsolescence is a guaranteed feature.

Rogers finishes her book with an examination of how to deal with this problem. She looks closely at the “green capitalists” and details their shortcomings. In particular, Rogers highlights their opposition to regulations and how the inherent competition impulse in all capitalist enterprises ultimately fails the environment.

She counterposes this group to those advocating “zero waste”. Such advocates want to maximise recycling, minimise waste, reduce consumption and oppose in-built obsolescence. Rogers writes: “Zero waste differs from green capitalism in that the state plays a key role in regulating discard levels and natural resources.”

Rogers’ book is based on extensive research, demonstrated by her endnotes taking up 55 pages. It is a fascinating and instructive read. It helps to inform the reader about how capitalism continues to obstruct effective environmental changes.

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